23 September: Tottenham 1 Arsenal 2. When swearing was a crime, but hitting a player was ok





By Tony Attwood

23 September 1922

This game became notorious both for what was called in the media, the roughness of the play and the allegation that the crowd at White Hart Lane unduly influenced a referee’s decision-making.

Tottenham’s forward Walden went off injured after 10 minutes leaving Tottenham obviously a man short for the rest of the game (no subs in ancient days).    With Arsenal having come to play a defensive game (a fairly reasonable decision based on the position of the two clubs at the time near the foot of the league) the Reds (as was Arsenal’s nickname at the time) focussed on a long ball game out of defence hoping to catch Tottenham on the break and exploit their one-man advantage.  And it worked, as having held the game at 0-0 at halftime, Arsenal then went 2-0 up in the second half as Tottenham tired.

But with ten minutes to go Tottenham got the ball in the Arsenal net.   The referee disallowed it for offside but was then surrounded by the Tottenham team and was “persuaded” to change his mind.  Arsenal obviously protested at this change in the decision, and as a brawl broke out on the pitch Alec Graham punched Tottenham’s Smith.  What one paper then described as “A certain amount of uproar” followed but the game was completed with no more goals.  Arsenal had an away victory at Tottenham and in the space of two games had risen four places up the league away from an unwelcome proximity to the relegation zone.

The FA began an enquiry – to which Sir Henry Norris was of course called.

But what made matters worse was that the League had continued with the policy it had introduced for the first time in 1919/20 of playing the home and away fixtures between clubs in consecutive matches for most of the season.  Arsenal had already played Liverpool, Burnley and Cardiff twice and now having played Tottenham at the Lane, the next match (with the fight on the pitch still the prime talking point of London football) was the return game at Highbury.

The results of the enquiry by the FA are interesting indeed: Smith of Tottenham was found guilty of using bad language and suspended for a month.  Let us just pause at that point – a month’s suspension for “bad language”.  Now given that sentence, you might be wondering what Graham got for hitting Smith.  He got a censure for retaliation and was warned about his future conduct.  But no suspension.

It was in fact the reverse of what we might expect today, and one might wonder why.  The answer I think is “history”; the country had lived through the appalling slaughter of the first world war and violence, of course, is the heart and soul of wartime.  But in the military one does not swear at a superior officer.  Hence bad language used against the ref was absolutely unacceptable while retaliation was understandable, although worthy of a warning.

In short, it was the swearing at a person in authority that was the crime.  Two working-class men hitting each other was… well, everyday.

Tottenham as a club were also warned about the behaviour of their crowd, and were warned of a ground closure if further trouble ensued.  Order had to be maintained.

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